Jane Mangan on racing: A quiet Christmas off the course, full of thrills on it

Cork jockey Darragh O'Keeffe recorded a major win this week
Jane Mangan on racing: A quiet Christmas off the course, full of thrills on it

Barry O'Neill on Bravo Team racing away to win the maiden race for 4-Y-O geldings (division two) at the Duhallow Point to Point at Dromahane. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

NO crowds, no atmosphere, no problem for Ireland’s Champion Trainer Willie Mullins. 

While we wrapped presents, stuffed turkeys and discussed the year past over mince pies and cherry trifle, the master of Closutton was plotting complete and utter domination of Ireland’s Christmas Festivals.

Over the course of four days at Limerick and Leopardstown, team Willie Mullins took home 16 winners including six of the eight at Grade 1 level, not to mention the Paddy Power Chase with Castlebawn West and all the places behind A Plus Tard in the Savills Chase.

Appreciate It and Monkfish were flawless in their respective divisions while the brilliant Sharjah completed three consecutive successes in the Mathewson Hurdle under an exquisitely timed ride from the trainer's son Patrick.

Twelve months ago, Gordon Elliott swept the boards in a similar fashion before Mullins exacted his revenge at the Dublin Racing Festival but it appears the tables turned in dramatic style to cap off what has been a most unusual year in the most familiar of fashion!

 P Rogan on Fiston Du Mou over the last to win the maiden race for 5-Y-O geldings at Dromahane. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
P Rogan on Fiston Du Mou over the last to win the maiden race for 5-Y-O geldings at Dromahane. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Ante-post markets took a hit on opening day as Epatante fluffed her lines against Silver Streak, Frodon threw a spanner in the Gold Cup picture while Altior failed to fire on day two.

Flooring Porter justified Gavin Cromwell’s confidence when making all in the Christmas Hurdle and considering his €6,000 purchase price, that was an endearing story we all needed to hear!

Meanwhile, Chacun Pour Soi reminded us all why he’s regarded as Ireland’s best two-mile chaser when thrashing Notebook and Put The Kettle On at Leopardstown.

Henry de Bromhead was down but not out. After a few frustrating days followed by favourite Minella Indo hit the deck early in the Savills Chase, it seemed like all was lost for the Tramore trainer until Darragh O’Keeffe conjured an almighty effort from Cheveley Park’s A Plus Tard to collar Melon and Kemboy on the line.

Just 20-years-old and already champion conditional rider, Darragh O’Keeffe was tasting his first experience at the top level, a factor that made his patient ride all the more impressive.

Such was the depth of quality in the Savills Chase that despite the first two horses in the market exiting at an early stage, the race still maintained it’s competitiveness and energy. A Plus Tard emerged as a legitimate Gold Cup contender, Kemboy returned to his best form and to my eye, Melon might just be at his best over a slightly shorter distance – the Ryanair.

If considering Melon for an ante-post Gold Cup market, one must remember a very important factor – his owner. Joe Donnelly enjoyed Christmas successes with The Big Getaway and Ramillies at Leopardstown and of course, Shishkin was awesome at Kempton but the best might be yet to come.

Such was the talk about the Savills Chase and the King George VI, it’s easy to forget that the reigning Gold Cup Champion actually lines up at Tramore on Friday. The New Year’s Day fixture has become a staple in Al Boum Photo’s campaign and with the ground likely to be ideal, let’s hope the defending champion reminds everyone why he’s seeking to emulate the great Best Mate in March.

Tim Dineen at the Duhallow Point to Point races. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Tim Dineen at the Duhallow Point to Point races. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Over the coming weeks, Mullins will be mapping spring targets for his jubilant stars while Elliott goes back to basics but one yard that won’t be celebrating their Christmas exploits is that of Nicky Henderson.

Despite a number of notable winners including Shishkin in the Wayward Lad at Kempton, Henderson suffered surprise defeats with a number of his best inmates. Following closer examination, Henderson revealed that the horses' scopes weren’t satisfactory and has taken the decision to shut the yard for a number of weeks.

Such a drastic moves serves as a reminder as to how fickle the sport can be and despite the level of racehorse, health is key. Such a situation is the stuff of nightmares for trainers and while team Nicholls continues to blaze a trail ahead of Henderson, you can rest assured that Nicky will have his team firing on all cylinders comes the spring carnivals.

That’s why he’s one of the best. The secret isn’t in winning, it’s about learning from defeat.

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